Monday, February 07, 2011

Little Boy Brown at One...

The late Ronald Reagan in 1982 (wikipedia)
It seems fitting that the junior US Senator from our home state should have been sworn in so close to Ronald Reagan's birthday.  In case you were unaware, Sunday would have been the 100th birthday of Ronald Reagan, our nation's 40th president.  Only three days ago, Scott Brown, who won Massachusetts just as the Gipper did in 1980 and 1984, celebrated his first year in the Senate.  As conservatives fall to their knees nationwide to honor Reagan (even as they mythologize the man to their own benefit), we thought it appropriate to consider how Brown has done over the past year and how he may be for the next two.

It goes without saying that as Republicans patted themselves on the back last November, Scott Brown needed to think again about his own political posture.  Among the first things that came out of his mouth after the national Republican sweep that yielded only a few State House seats in Massachusetts was that he worked for Bay Staters and not for Mitch McConnell.  While his decision to vote for financial reform and a few unemployment extensions went against the will of Madman Mitch, for the most part Brown was a loyal GOP soldier.

Sen. Brown (wikipedia)
Some of that did begin to change after the election, however.  He joined forces with Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon to support an amendment to the Health Care Reform Law that would permit states to do basically whatever they want (within reason) to ensure all residents have health care as long as everybody has coverage that would under the current bill.  The measure is supported by Vermont independent Bernie Sanders whose home state would like to institute a single-payer system.  It also has support from market purist states that could seek a market solution in lieu of the exchanges like those we have here in Massachusetts.  Brown remains opposed to overall reform law and voted for a repeal measure that failed last week in the US Senate.

On the other hand, Brown remained in lockstep with his caucus' demand that tax cuts for all without finding the money to pay for it.  Meanwhile, a one year unemployment extension, which would cost a fraction as much, met a Republican demand, echoed by Brown, that it be paid for.  Brown proposed that the unemployment extension be funded using unspent money from past fiscal years, but that measure failed.  Brown would ultimately vote for the compromise reached between the White House and Senate Republicans.  Massachusetts Democratic Senior Senator, John Kerry voted likewise on the compromise.

Sen. Collins, left with Sen. Snowe both of Maine (wikipedia)
After the compromise, Brown voted to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell at least in part at the urging of Republican colleague Susan Collins, the bill's cosponsor.  Brown's support for the bill is not particularly surprising, but it is notable.  It is all but improbable that Brown actually thought he could shore up the gay vote in anticipation of the 2012 election.  However, it does spare him raising the specific fury of the state's large and influential gay rights community.

As for Brown's vote to ratify the New START treaty, it is hard to read any political arithmetic into this other than Brown could be painted as weak on national defense.  Just as likely, Brown, accepting his minimal foreign credentials, simply listened to the treaty's top Senate proponent, John Kerry, and realized it was the right thing to do for global nuclear security.

Other than these events, however, Brown has not gone too far off-script.  He remains adamantly opposed to tax increases and maintains the air of a fiscal conservative.  Even his vote for financial reform came at a price.  He demanded that a modest tax on banks to funded liquidation of insolvent banks be removed.  It was a concession he claimed had been aimed at protecting jobs at MassMutual and other financial companies (most shrugged at Brown's efforts).  However, it was a gift to true investment banks of ungodly size like Goldman Sachs or Massachusetts' own State Street Bank.  The fund, therefore, does not exist complicating future efforts to dismantle unstable firms before a bailout would be necessary.

Gov. Patrick in 2007 (WMassP&I)
It is too early to know for sure what Brown's chances are for reelection.  Too much can happen between now and then, but some things we do know.  Brown remains personally popular in Massachusetts, although similar polling existed for many congressmen and senators who were unceremoniously pressed into retirement last year.  Not to mention, it is easy to be popular with such good looks and nobody publicly challenging your record.  Brown also caught a break when Ted Kennedy's widow Victoria Reggie and Gov. Deval Patrick both took a pass at challenging him come 2012.  Several of the state's congressmen are eying the race (as the other congressmen hold their breath to avoid getting redistricted out).  However, right now only Mike Capuano has any statewide exposure having been defeated by Martha Coakley for the Democratic nomination in December 2009.  Brown also has a shockingly deep campaign war chest.

However, the golden image is not untarnished and if money assuredly bought elections we would have a Republican majority in the Senate right now.  Several of Brown's positions, when put under a microscope, may not sit as well with the Massachusetts electorate.  Compounding the problem is the possibility Democrats repeat their impressive 2010 get out the vote effort in 2012.  This will be all the easier for Democrats with Obama headlining the ticket, barring unforeseen circumstances.

Brown also has some problems with his base.  Certain tea party groups, whose power in Massachusetts is questionable anyway, have already disavowed Brown.  They promise a primary challenge, but that is not really the worst thing they could do to Brown.  As tea partiers tend to be absolutists, were a primary challenge to fail, as it probably would, they would not likely support him in the general election by either not showing up or by voting for a third party.  Just as damaging, a protracted primary battle could drain Brown's campaign cash.  Notably, these tea party groups bemoan Brown's New START vote raising serious questions about the motives and agenda of the tea party more generally and their politically petulant "no compromises" stand.

SEC Seal (wikipedia)
At the same time, Brown must stand by the votes he has taken on legislation that passed the Senate with his support.  In particular, Brown must commit to funding whatever the Securities and Exchange Commission and other regulators need to implement the Wall Street Reform bill.  Otherwise, his vote last year could be meaningless to the moderates he needs while he gets stuck with the ire of arch-conservatives.

Without the base that was possibly the margin of victory in 2010 and if his Democratic challenger is feisty where Coakley was not, Brown will have a race that no amount of barn jackets, pickup trucks and nude centerfolds can so magically turn into a win.  This is not to say he cannot win (again it is simply too early).  However, the entire dynamic of the race will be different and the people that got him there are unlikely to come around.  Nor will Brown begin channeling Jim DeMint, lest he concedes the race right now.

There may be one thing Brown can do that would seriously undercut a Democratic opponent's attacks while truly rising to the level of statesmanship.  Although it could put his renomination in play (although still doubtfully so), Brown could make the bold step of breaking with the Republican party on health care.  Brown telegraphed a lack of commitment to the Republican party position most clearly with the amendment cosponsored with Wyden.  Certainly Brown does not need to admit that the Democratic bill is good, but his opposition does not seem particularly credible when he voted for a near-identical bill in his home state's legislature.  Republicans can point to no math that supports Brown's reason for opposing the federal bill (it will cost too much) other than a healthy cynicism that Congress will not follow through with the necessary medical cost reforms. Thus, the senator's position remains weird, at least by Massachusetts standards.

Sen. Wyden (wikipedia)
However, supporting the law by itself is not enough and would entail too many risks to be worth it.  Implying an alternate position as he has by working with Wyden will not do the trick either.  Rather, Brown should begin working on a bill that would fix the individual mandate's Constitutional problems. Realistically, there should be no Constitutional problems, but here we are waging expensive court battles.  Brown, with the help of more than a few Democrats like Missouri's Claire McCaskill, could craft a bill that would save the rest of the law and have a fail-safe to achieve the individual mandates goals without the Constitutional mess.  Mitch McConnell may stage a nutty, but Brown's moderate stance could have the potential to dislodge even enough Republican moderates in the House to make it a reality.

The tea party would hate him for it.  Sarah Palin would probably buy a house in Massachusetts just to campaign against him, but it would break his own party's dangerous rightward anti-moderation, anti-compromise bend.  It may not guarantee Brown's reelection, but it would elevate Brown above his fairly one-dimensional "he took Kennedy's seat" image.  What's more it would be in the interests of the country as a whole.   Certainly health care for all cannot not come regardless of the cost, but having a healthy population is a necessity in a global marketplace.  Going without universal health care in this country is not just a moral failure, but an economic lodestone that hinders growth more than the taxes necessary to provide such care ever will be.

Reagan Statue on Capital Hill (wikipedia)
The biggest victory would not be for Brown, but for compromise.  This is what brings us back to Ronald Reagan.  While the right continues to frame Reagan as a more conservative Jesus Christ, they forget that among Reagan's most important attributes was a willingness to compromise.  He was neither zealot nor absolutist.  He genuinely wanted what was best for the country and 9 times out of 10, that was found in compromise.  If Brown chooses to revive that Reagan legacy and on an issue as contentious as health care, he may live up to the Gipper's example.  If not, he will end up, win or lose in 2012, as a partisan lost to history, but for the possibility of being rated People's magazine's sexiest senator.

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